Rahovets Fortress – Gorna Oryahovitsa, Bulgaria

The ancient and medieval settlement and fortress of Rahovets is located near the town of Gorna Oryahovitsa and the city of Veliko Tarnovo, in Veliko Tarnovo District, Northern Bulgaria. It existed as a settlement and later as a fortress from the 6th century BC until the 15th century AD, and was used consecutively by the Ancient Thracians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. The Rahovets Fortress is located at a curve of the Yantra River, on a hill towering about 100 meters over the surrounding area.

The site of the Rahovets Fortress was inhabited by the Ancient Thracians, during the Iron Age, as early as the 6th century BC. Some Bulgarian scholars have hypothesized that the settlement that later became known as the Rahovets Fortress was part of a huge regional fortification system in Thracian times, and/or that Rahovets was in fact the ancient city Beripara, the alleged capital of the Thracian tribe Krobyzoi (which might have belonged to the Thracian tribes of the Gets (Getae) or the Dacians). However, these hypotheses have not been proven. The Roman Fortress of Rahova, later called Rahovets, was built in the 3rd-4th century AD as part of the fortification system guarding the roads in the Roman province of Moesia Inferior (later divided into Moesia Secunda and Scythia Minor).

Rahovets remained an important fortress during the period of the Early Byzantine Empire (Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages), during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD), then again during the period of Byzantine domination over Bulgaria (1018-1185 AD). It became especially important during the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396), which was created after the Uprising of Asen and Petar (later Tsar Asen I and Tsar Petar IV) against the Byzantine Empire in 1185-1186 AD when Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo) was declared capital of Bulgaria. It became part of a set of fortifications which protected Tarnovgrad from the north. There are hypotheses that Rahovets used to be the locations of the coin mint of the Tsars from the Second Bulgarian Empire, and while these hypotheses have not been confirmed, Bulgarian archaeologists have indeed discovered there evidence of metal smelting during the Middle Ages. They have also found a residential area outside of the fortress, between the fortress wall and the Yantra River, known as the Dark City, meaning that it might have been the site of a large medieval city, where the Rahovets Fortress had the role of a citadel.

After the invading Ottoman Turks conquered the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 14th century, they continued to use the Rahovets Fortress. The fortress was destroyed only in 1444 AD by the forces of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III ((r. 1424-1444 AD) who launched two unsuccessful Crusades against the Ottoman Empire in 1443 AD and 1444 AD (he is also known as Vladislav Varnenchik (Vladislav of Varna) because he was killed in the Battle of Varna in 1444 AD). After that, the Turks abandoned the Rahovets Fortress completely. While much of the archaeological structures at the Rahovets Fortress had survived until the beginning of the 20th century (including fortress walls, towers, and gates described by Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil), those were destroyed in 1913 by a strong earthquake with an epicenter in the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa.

The Rahovets Fortress was first mentioned in historical sources by Byzantine chronicler George Pachymeres (1242-1310) in 1304 AD, and again in 1460 AD by German wandering singer Michael Beheim (1416-ca. 1472) in a poem based on the story of a crusader knight from the second Crusade of Polish King Vladislav (Wladyslaw) III against the Ottoman Empire aiming the liberation of Bulgaria and the other Balkan Christian nations in 1444 AD. In the early 20th century, Czech-Bulgarian archaeologist Karel Skorpil drafted a blueprint of the preserved ruins of the Rahovets Fortress, which, however, were destroyed further by an earthquake in 1913. The Rahovets Fortress was excavated only between 1985 and 1991 by Veliko Tarnovo archaeologists Yordan Aleksiev, Ivan Bachvarov, and Hitko Vatchev. They excavated partly the western, northern, and eastern fortress wall, which were about 3 meters thick. The archaeological digs at the fortress confirmed not only its significance during the Second Bulgarian Empire but also the fact that as a settlement it is really ancient: the Bulgarian archaeologists found a large amount of Ancient Thracian ceramics, and amphora seals testifying about the connections with the Hellenic world. They also discovered the nearby remains of a rural Ancient Roman villa (known as villa rustica) from the 3rd-4th century AD, ancient coins, decorations, and tools as well as artifacts and arms from the Second Bulgarian Empire.

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Archaeology in Bulgaria. and Beyond